Conspiracism as Parody of Institutional Analysis

The conspiracist analysis of history has become uncoupled from a logical train of thought. . .it is a non–rational belief system that manifests itself in degrees. Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power. Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis–an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo. Bruce Cumings, put it like this:

“But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with “conspiracy theory.” History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities.”[i]

Many authors who reject centrist/extremist theory use power structure research, a systemic methodology that looks at the role of significant institutions, social class, and power blocs in a society. Power structure research has been used by several generations of progressive authors including C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar.[ii] Some mainstream social scientists, especially those enamored of centrist/extremist theory, have unfairly dismissed radical left critiques of US society as conspiracy theories.[iii]

Power structure research is not inherently conspiracist, but conspiracist pseudo–radical parodies of power structure research abound. Examples include right–wing populist critics such as Gary Allen, Antony Sutton, Bo Gritz, Craig Hulet, and Eustace Mullins. Left–wing populist critics include David Emory, John Judge, and Danny Sheehan of the Christic Institute. Conspiracism tarnishes the artistic work of filmmaker Oliver Stone. A recent book by the respected left analyst Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths, contains a very problematic defense of conspiracism.[iv] There are also a plethora of practitioners who have drawn from both the left and the right such as Daniel Brandt and the late Ace Hayes.

Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for economic and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems and structures of power.[v] Conspiracist allegations, therefore, interfere with a serious progressive analysis–an analysis that challenges the objective institutionalized systems of oppression and power, and seeks a radical transformation of the status quo.

The subjectivist view of conspiracist critics of the status quo is a parody of serious research. As Lyons observes, “To claim, for instance, that the Rockefellers control the world, takes multiple interconnections and complex influences and reduces them to mechanical wire pulling.”[vi] As one report critical of right–wing populist conspiracism suggested:

“There is a vast gulf between the simplistic yet dangerous rhetoric of elite cabals, Jewish conspiracies and the omnipotence of ‘international finance’ and a thoughtful analysis of the deep divisions and inequities in our society.”[vii]

Separating real conspiracies from the exaggerated, non–rational, fictional, lunatic, or deliberately fabricated variety is a problem faced by serious researchers, and journalists. For progressive activists, differentiating between the progressive power structure research and the pseudo–radical allegations of conspiracism is a prerequisite for rebuilding a left analysis of social and political problems.


[i] Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 2, The Roaring of the Cataract 1947–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 767.

[ii] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. G. William Domhoff, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979, (1978)); Domhoff, Who Rules America Now: A View for the ‘80’s, (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1986, (1983)); Holly Sklar, ed., Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management, (Boston: South End Press, 1980); Sklar, Reagan, Trilateralism and the Neoliberals: Containment and Intervention in the 1980s, (Boston: South End Press (Pamphlet No. 4), 1986); Sklar, Chaos or Community: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics, (Boston: South End Press, 1995).

[iii] For example, David Brion Davis includes articles by progressive investigative reporter George Seldes and radical Black power advocates Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in his collection of conspiracist writings, David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un–American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971).

[iv] Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths: Reflections on Politics, Media, Ideology, Conspiracy, Ethnic Life and Class Power, (San Fransisco: City Lights, 1996.)

[v] Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?…Not!,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, Jan., 1992, pp. 17-19; Michael Albert, “Conspiracy?…Not, Again,” Venting Spleen column, Z Magazine, May,. 1992, pp. 86-88.

[vi] Matthew N. Lyons, working draft of chapter segment in Berlet & Lyons, Too Close for Comfort.

[vii] Jonathan Mozzochi and L. Events Rhinegard, Rambo, Gnomes and the New World Order: The Emerging Politics of Populism, (Portland, OR: Coalition for Human Dignity, 1991), p. 1.